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A Refugee Camp In The Heart Of The City

camp300.jpgFew Americans (or Western Europeans, for that matter) truly know what it means to live in a refugee camp. Some of the problems that arise from such conditions can be easily recognized from television news, such as lack of access to food or sanitary latrines. Some may only be visible upon deeper reflection, or through actual experience -- for example, how does one store sufficient amounts of water in a communal shelter?

Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) has developed a program called "A Refugee Camp in the Heart of the City," bringing a small but accurate version of a typical refugee facility to cities in the West. The exhibit includes examples of shared housing, food distribution centers, and a health care clinic, as well as information about sanitation and malnutrition. Most importantly, the MSF refugee camp brings stories from real refugee camp survivors from around the world. First constructed in 1995, where it traveled across Western Europe, the MSF camp has been visited by thousands. An exhibition in 2000 toured around the United States, bringing the educational program to audiences from Manhattan to Santa Monica. A 2005 version -- updated to include information about refugee experiences over the last five years -- was set to open this week in Central Park, in New York.

That opening has been postponed until 2006, and for good reason.

Médecins Sans Frontières is made up of doctors specializing in the care of people under extremely adverse conditions. Not surprisingly, many of the MSF members in North America -- who would be staffing the refugee camp exhibit -- are hard at work in the Gulf region, caring for victims of hurricane Katrina. Undoubtedly, many of these physicians and nurses are preparing to move west, to handle the victims of Rita, after it comes ashore tomorrow.

In the meantime, the website produced in coordination with the 2000 tour is still active, and the information it holds -- including an interactive virtual tour of a refugee facility -- remains useful, and powerful.

In the days following the collapse of the levees in New Orleans, one of the minor -- if strongly-felt -- debates taking place was whether to refer to the people left homeless and eventually evacuated from the city as "refugees." The word triggered powerful emotions in many, who reacted as if only people in other countries could ever be considered such -- "we're Americans, not refugees!" was a common refrain. Such a response captured both a feeling of defiance and a kind of bewilderment, as if "it can't happen here."

Whether they're called refugees, evacuees, or "displaced persons," we need to get much, much smarter about how to make their lives bearable in the aftermath of disaster. To do so, the first step is to educate ourselves about how far we need to go. Because, as Katrina made abundantly clear, none of us are immune from catastrophe.

Comments (3)

We have to design with a refugee camp as our baseline, a bare maximum refugee camp. And then, we have to start from the reality.

Harvard Graduate School of Design had a class on designing refugee housing a year or so ago and came up with some interesting ideas. However, they didn't start from where the UN actually is, the logical place to start. And I would bet that few if any of those interesting ideas will ever be implemented.

In my overhoused comfort, I try to think like a refugee because I'm paranoid, because I'm congenitally cheap, because I know that I'm no better than any one of those people you see in the news displaced and homeless, destitute and seeking refuge. There but for the grace of God go I and I feel that truth down to my bones.


That refugee camp in Central Park - do the take reservations?
How much per day?
Are pets allowed?


Well said. I totally agree with you. The point you are making here does make sense. And all those who oppose your views actually lack the basic essence of the subject. You must keep doing the good work.


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